Twins opt for speed, deal Hardy for O's hurlers
Casilla, Nishioka likely double-play combo; Harris also traded
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Twins have said throughout the offseason that one of their goals has been to add speed to their lineup, and the one area where they felt they could do that was in the middle infield.The club's desire to go in that direction became clear when it posted the winning bid for exclusive negotiating rights with speedy Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka last month. And the Twins solidified that thought on Thursday when they closed out the Winter Meetings by trading shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Orioles. The deal sent Hardy, infielder Brendan Harris and $500,000 cash to Baltimore in exchange for two right-handed Minor League pitchers, Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey. Twins general manager Bill Smith said that the driving factor behind trading Hardy was manager Ron Gardenhire's desire to add more speed to the lineup. Since Hardy didn't fit the speed profile and was coming off a season in which he made $5.1 million while playing just 101 games for the Twins due to a left wrist injury, he appeared to become expendable. And the club found a deal that it felt made the most sense. "We had a chance to add a couple hard-throwing relievers, which we need," Smith said. "We do not have a great pool of hard throwers, and these guys add velocity to our system." The trade didn't come as a surprise considering that Hardy's future had been up in the air ever since the Twins had placed the winning bid for Nishioka. In addition to working to bring the speedy, switching-hitting infielder to Minnesota, the Twins had said that they would like to give Alexi Casilla a chance at a starting job in the middle infield. The Twins have until 11 p.m. CT on Dec. 26 to reach a deal with Nishioka, 26, or they will not have to pay the $5 million posting fee. The club has been in discussions with Nishioka's agent, Rick Thurman of the Beverly Hills Sports Council, throughout the week, and all signs have pointed to the fact that a deal could come as soon as next week. "We hope to sign Nishioka, but this was not done in advance of the Nishioka deal," Smith said. "He would be a good fit for us, but we have some other depth [in the middle infield]." Still, the trade appears to be a good sign that the Twins are confident that they can complete a deal with Nishioka, who is believed to be seeking a three-year contract worth $3-5 million per year. He would travel to Minnesota for a physical before a signing is made official. The Twins are now expected to go with a middle-infield combination of Nishioka and Casilla, with Casilla likely playing shortstop. Casilla had a breakout season in 2008, when he batted .281 with 15 doubles, seven homers and 50 RBIs, but the infielder struggled when handed a starting job in the 2009 season, hitting just .202 and losing his spot as the everyday second baseman. But Casilla rebounded in a backup role last year, and the Twins have high hopes for him going forward. "In 2008 when he came up, he was a good player for us," Smith said. "He was a spark plug for us, a little bit of a catalyst. We were hoping we would see that in 2009, but we didn't. He continues to mature. He did a good job this year in a reserve role, and I think our manager and coaches are excited to see him get a little better opportunity." The Twins have some holes to fill, primarily in a bullpen that could be hit hard by free-agent departures, but this trade isn't expected to necessarily have an immediate impact on those needs. "We were looking for the best players," Smith said. "If they were Major League players [or] if they were prospects, we were looking to make the best deal we could. This club has had, over the last 15 years or 12 years, a lot of success taking prospects." The Twins did get velocity in the deal, as Hoey and Jacobson are two hard-throwing right-handers who feature fastballs that top out in the mid-to-high 90-mph range. Hoey, 27, had a combined 6-0 record with a 3.25 ERA in 42 outings between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk last season. He made 35 appearances for the Orioles during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, going 3-5 with an 8.13 ERA, but missed all of '08 with a right shoulder injury. Jacobson, 24, was 8-1 with a 2.79 ERA in 34 appearances as a reliever at Class A Frederick last season. While Jacobson has yet to pitch above Class A and could likely start the 2011 season at Double-A New Britain, Hoey could be an option for Minnesota's bullpen this coming season. "We'll get him in the mix," Smith said. "He'll come to big league camp depending what else happens between now and then. Right now, we have some holes to fill in the bullpen, and he'll certainly be a candidate." Smith said Minnesota had been in talks with a half-dozen teams in recent weeks regarding Hardy. The Pirates reportedly came close to dealing for Hardy last week before the Twins tendered a contract to the shortstop, but talks fell apart. "There was definite interest in him," Smith said. "And we were certainly glad to find what I think will be a good home for him." Hardy, who was acquired by the Twins in a trade with the Brewers in November 2009, will now be playing for his third team in three years. Hardy batted .268 with six homers and 38 RBIs in 101 games for the Twins in 2010 while being hampered by a left wrist injury. The 28-year-old is one year away from free agency, and he could make close to $6 million in his final year of arbitration. Harris, 30, hit .157 with one homer and four RBIs in 43 games with the Twins in 2010, and .233 with four homers and 29 RBIs at Triple-A Rochester after he was outrighted there on June 24. He is set to make $1.75 million in 2011. By sending Hardy and Harris to Baltimore, the Twins will clear a little over $7 million in payroll for next season, which could help them as they go forward and continue to structure their roster.